A buyer’s market

With delegate rates holding steady and a host of innovations on offer, there
has never been a better time to hold an event away from the office

It has always paid to shop around, but with more hotels and universities
getting in on the venues game, there’s more choice and more opportunities to
negotiate over rates. At the same time, the industry looks to be honing its
customer relationship management skills, adding value by offering a flexible,
individualised service to clients.

"We’re definitely seeing at the moment that when we’re going out to
negotiate rates for clients, we’re maintaining the rates we had last
year," says Sharon White, account director for venue finding agency IBR.
"Hotels and conference centres are also taking on account management roles
and want to find out what it takes to get the business."

But while prices have remained static, customer expectations have risen.

Tony Rogers, executive director of the British Association of Conference
Destinations, which offers a free venue-finding service, feels that dedicated
training and conference centres have carved out a niche for themselves.
"They’ve been forecast to grow by 20 percent over the next five
years," he says. "It’s more and more important for venues to have
purpose-built meeting rooms, accommodation and the latest technology. It’s
getting less and less acceptable for a hotel that has a multi-purpose room to
sell it as a conference room."

Enthusiasm

The venues market suffered in recent years as diminishing training budgets
and the growth of e-learning compelled many training managers to keep more of
their training in house. While the trend is still for events of shorter
duration – the average length is now just one and a half days – there are signs
of organisations now coming back to face-to-face training with a renewed sense
of why they’re there and what they want from a venue. The effect on venue
providers has been to place greater emphasis on personalised service as a means
of wooing training managers to take their programmes out of the office.

"Organisations are cutting back on people staying overnight, not
cutting back on holding the events – that’s our experience," says Mary
Fowell, director of sales and marketing for the non-residential venue provider
Etc Venues.

The company’s customer base increased 38 per cent in the past year,
according to Fowell. Elsewhere in the industry, providers are expanding the
number of venues as well as the range of facilities they have on offer. For
example, Woodland Grange near Leamington Spa, where residential rates are £130
per day (£40 for day delegates), is in the process of planning a major
expansion of the number of training rooms and bedrooms on the site.

Woodland Grange chief executive Andy Taylor believes there is still a lack
of dedicated venues in the UK. As a result, some commercial conference centres
"mix all different sorts of clients" he says, for example, taking
weddings as well as corporate clients. "Training managers need to be
mindful that the atmosphere and services offered by the venue are supportive of
why they are there, and that’s the training."

Differentiation

Many dedicated conference and venue providers, like Woodland Grange, are
pulling out the stops in an effort to differentiate themselves from the growing
number of hotels entering the market by offering all-inclusive pricing packages
and investing heavily in technology and purpose-built facilities. The
development of some unconventional venues is also making more of a showing (see
box right).

Loughborough University is expanding the range of venues on offer and
drawing on the institution’s expertise in sports psychology – bringing together
all of its training and conference facilities under the new brand, Imago.

"If you’re going to remain in the game, you need to focus on customer
care," says Imago business development manager Emma Boynton. "The
whole point of the company is to offer high-performance conference facilities
that meet every need."

In addition to residential venue Burleigh Court and conference facilities on
the Loughborough campus, Imago’s non-residential centre, Holywell Park, is due
to open in February. It’s a new market for Loughborough, developed in response
to research indicating greater demand for one-day events. Imago’s all-inclusive
rates range from £48 per day for non-residential day delegates to £140 for
residential.

Training managers are as mindful of the bottom line as ever but not so quick
to fall for the cheapest deal, according to Jane Littlewood, sales and
operations manager of Hayley Conference Centres. "It’s not about going on
a training course and having a bit of a jolly anymore," says Littlewood.
"It’s about going on the training and the company getting a good return on
investment."

She believes dedicated venue providers will always have an edge over hotels
when it comes to service and understanding the needs of clients. "The
problem is [hotels] are always mixing their markets and they’ll never be a pure
brand," says Littlewood, "In the restaurant, for example, two people
having a romantic meal and 10 guys wanting to talk about their event just don’t
mix."

Hayley’s residential rates start at £185 (£60 per day delegate) and are
inclusive of meals, refreshments, equipment and health & fitness
facilities. Only highly technical equipment such as staging is extra, and
there’s a nominal charge for internet access.

The ‘no-hidden-extras’ approach has become the norm among dedicated venue
providers. Warwick Conferences, for example, has residential rates starting at
£138 per person in its management centres, but from £64 per person for large
conferences using student accommodation on the university campus. Wyboston
Lakes near Cambridge offers a residential rate of £118 (£35 day delegate). Use
of the health and fitness club is an additional £5 per day and rates for
internet usage and ISDN for video conferencing can be negotiated.

Adding value

Wyboston Lakes has a full-time AV and IT specialist on site, which business
development manager Brian Payton says is essential given today’s technology.
Flexibility is also critical, particularly around menus, meal times and room
requirements. "You can no longer put forward a very firm package – it’s a
buyer’s market," says Payton, who also sits on the marketing board of
Conference Centres of Excellence. "If you’re very fixed with your product
and you can’t offer four syndicates instead of two, then you lose that
business."

‘Cabaret layout’ and a greater requirement for syndicate rooms are becoming
the norm, reflecting trainers’ move towards informality.

"We’re also seeing more emphasis on leisure in the training and
conference market," says Alastair Stewart, managing director of Initial
Style Conferences, which provides experts to advise delegates on health and
fitness. "Mind and body go together, and there’s a growing desire on the
part of many organisations to see that their delegates are fit and
healthy," he says.

Initial Style’s all-inclusive residential rates are from £120 per day (£40
day delegate) but Stewart urges organisations to negotiate substantial savings
on Mondays and Fridays and ‘bonus weeks’ during holiday and half-term periods.

When searching for a venue, training managers should at the very least check
on service quality and reputation, and find out whether refurbishments have
been maintained. Stewart also advises looking out for the ‘enhanced features’
that will impress delegates, citing the free internet cafes Initial Style is
introducing in all venues.

Managers need to be sensitive to the shift brought about by taking training
out of the office, says Sally-Ann Huson, knowledge and intellectual property
director at people development consultancy TMI. "If you change the
physical, you change the psychological," she says.

For the intervention to have lasting impact, careful management is required.
"It’s about making people feel comfortable to enable them to participate
and learn," says Huson. "Organisations now have a clearer purpose for
their events, they’re more conscious of value for money. It’s a lot more
demanding – which is great, because the standards of venue providers have
improved."

Initial style conferences
Getting in the mood

Changing times require changing venues. With training
interventions increasingly focused on issues related to cultural and
behavioural change, a new kind of venue is called for, according to Alastair
Stewart, managing director of Initial Style Conferences.

Initial Style is one of a number of venue providers developing
distinctly unconventional environments designed to tap into the psychology of
learning. Think child’s play – complete with building bricks and dressing up
kits – or chilling out amid water fountains, aromatherapy perfumes and relaxing
tunes.

At its new venue near Manchester, Initial Style used a
specialist design firm to put together two ‘innovation rooms’ intended to
reflect opposing sides of the brain. The creative room features soft peach and
orange colours. One wall is covered in a bright, abstract-design carpet while
another comprises a huge white board – the idea being that the decor stimulates
the creation of ideas that can then be captured on the white board.

In contrast, the logic room uses dark blues and greys to relax
the brain, calming the thought processes with the aim of encouraging logical
thinking and pragmatic solutions.

"They’re unconventional rooms designed specifically to
prompt unconventional behaviour," says Stewart, who believes the move
towards more adventurous venues reflects the growing influence of emotional
intelligence on corporate life and design.

However, he does admit the ‘funky rooms’ aren’t everyone’s cup
of tea: "Some people love them and some hate them – it’s absolutely black
and white," he says.

Clever trainers recognise when to use unconventional settings –
perhaps only dipping in and out of them during a programme, or only using them
on day two or three after trust has been established.

"You can’t just take people in to a funky room and use
conventional material," says Stewart.

"The people who use the rooms best are those who
incorporate an element of psychology into their training. They are utterly at
home in this kind of space," he says.

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